Politics & Policy

The Christine O’Donnell Debate

Will O’Donnell’s political élan help the anti-statist cause more than her naïveté will hurt it?

Last Friday, GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who had defeated Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware primary three days earlier, was in Washington, where her cheerful excoriation of the pathologies of America’s “ruling-class elites” kindled the enthusiasm of the audience at the Values Voter Summit.

A short time later, O’Donnell, facing questions about witchcraft, mice with human brains, and the improper use of campaign funds, canceled appearances on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday.

Even her opinion of lying has been scrutinized. She holds Immanuel Kant’s view that to tell a lie is always wrong. Most people, I suppose, take Dr. Johnson’s position that “if . . . a murderer should ask you which way a man is gone, you may tell him what is not true.”

What is the conservative to make of O’Donnell’s candidacy? Although just about everyone on the right has now rallied around her as infinitely preferable to her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, the primary stoked an intense intra-conservative debate. Karl Rove, Erick Erickson, Charles Krauthammer, and writers at National Review pointed to the candidacy’s defects. Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Jim DeMint, and Sarah Palin argued for its promise.

O’Donnell has been compared to Palin, but she has nothing like Palin’s record of accomplishment. Palin, when she became John McCain’s running-mate in 2008, had in succession run a business, a town, and a state even as she raised a family. O’Donnell, by contrast, has been little more than a gadfly and a perennial office-seeker.

Yet she has, undeniably, a political gift; her gaffes can be plausibly explained, and perhaps her finances as well; gadflies have their virtues, of which courage is not the least. Her critique of the statist policies of the “ruling-class elites” has touched a nerve.

It is true that the word “elite” is apt to be tossed around a little casually in hard times. No simple definition of the term is likely to prove satisfactory, and the pathologies O’Donnell is concerned to isolate are more characteristic of certain members of the leading classes than others. Her bête noire is the elitist who has embraced the intrusive social state. The social creed was once the philosophy of rebels against established order; but, as Lionel Trilling long ago showed, it has become inseparable from a vision of power and mastery. The social idealist, Trilling said in 1948, is one “who takes license from his ideals for the unrestrained exercise of power.” The “ultimate threat to human freedom,” he wrote in a sympathetic account of George Orwell’s thought, could well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture.”

The question is whether O’Donnell can make her opposition to President Obama’s coercive (and expensive) social policies the focus of her campaign, or whether she will be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of talk-show chatter about covens, mice, and the sin of Onan.

The instinct to back her during the primary and accentuate the positive now seems to me right. O’Donnell’s political élan, at this point, probably helps the cause to which she adheres more than her naïveté hurts it: indeed, in this election cycle naïveté holds a certain charm for voters, and attempts to ridicule hers could well yield a Checkers-like moment that will redound to her advantage.

John Henry Newman, when he led the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement that shook the Church of England in the 1830s, went so far as to argue that naïve enthusiasm is more valuable, in reform movements, than the sophisticated tactical expediency that finds its “beau idéal” in “safe, sound, sensible men,” and in “a timid cautious course” charted by “second rate” characters “with low views” and “tame dull” ideas.

Newman conceded that the enthusiastic naïf is likely to have his foibles. But while “incidentally faulty in mode or language,” he is “still peculiarly effective.” The “very faults” of such an individual “excite attention; he loses, but his cause, if good, and he powerful minded, gains . . .”

O’Donnell knows how to excite attention, but are her faults more than foibles — will they be a decisive liability? Is she “powerful minded” enough to vindicate her cause in the Senate? These are legitimate questions, and yet there has been an impatience with candor in our own ranks. Conservatives who have raised doubts about O’Donnell’s candidacy have been stigmatized as little better than Judases, establishment cynics on a par with progressives who seek to manipulate for their own ends populist sentiments they themselves find darkly archaic.

Still the doubts remain. No one but O’Donnell herself can put them to rest. I hope she does.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book Pathology of the Elites will be published this fall.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published this year.


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